Tanveer Naseer

Leadership Coach, Speaker, and Writer

It’s Not You, It’s Me – Is Narcissism Good for Leadership?

When it comes to the portrayal of leadership in films and other fictional outlets, there’s a common tendency to present the leader as someone who is unmistakably confident and self-assured; who gives off an air of authority and a willingness to direct others towards the best path to take to get them out their current predicament. In many ways, this makes sense as when we think of a good leader, the traits that often come to mind are confidence, authority and dominance.

Of course, outside of the leadership role, the expression of such traits are not as well regarded considering that they are also the signs of a narcissistic personality – that such traits refer to an individual whose only concerned about their own self-interests, with little thought or regard for the needs or concerns of those around them.

So if we are to believe that leadership is about putting others before yourself, of encouraging those around you to succeed instead of simply directing them to help you personally attain some level of success, why is it that we continue to promote the narcissistic approach to leadership as the best one?  More importantly, does the narcissistic style of leadership help to foster the necessary conditions organizations require to succeed in today’s inter-connected and increasingly competitive market? Three recent studies help to shed some light on this and provide empirical proof that allows us to come to a definitive answer to this question.

In the first study, researchers from the University of Amsterdam recruited 150 participants to perform an exercise where they had to select the best candidate for a job position. The participants were divided into groups of three, with one individual being randomly selected to be the leader of the group. Although all group members could offer their advice about which candidate they felt was the best choice, the participants were told that the leader of the group would have the final say as to which candidate would be selected.

As part of the experiment, all group members received the same information about the various candidates, with the exception of one member who received a few additional pieces of information. The researchers designed the experiment so that only those groups where this additional information was shared would select the best candidate, while those groups where this extra information was withheld would end up picking one of the less favourable choices.

Following each group’s selection of who they would hire for the job, the participants were given questionnaires to answer, with the participant selected to be the group leader answering questions to measure their level of narcissism, while the other group members were given questions to assess the group leader’s authority and level of effectiveness. All of the participants were also given a checklist to mark off what pieces of information were shared with the group to help them make their decision.

What the researchers found was that groups which were run by the most narcissistic leaders shared the least amount of information, resulting in these groups picking the worst candidate for the job. On the other hand, in groups where leaders scored lowest for narcissism, there was more information sharing and discussion between team members, allowing these groups to pick the best candidate.

From their research findings, lead study author Barbora Nevicka concluded that the “narcissistic leaders had a very negative effect on their (group’s) performance. They inhibited the communication because of self-centeredness and authoritarianism.”

But the most striking finding from their study is how these leaders were perceived by the other members in their group. Although narcissistic leaders failed to encourage their team to communicate and share information in order to pick the best candidate, they earned higher ratings in terms of being an effective leader than those who helped to guide their teams towards the right choice. In other words, participants viewed narcissists as being better leaders even though they did a poorer job leading their teams to the best outcome.

This finding seems to reinforce what we see in many films, literature and even mainstream commentary – namely, that our perception of what constitutes an effective leader has less to do with what they help others to accomplish as it does with the level of authority and dominance they exemplify.

But the presence of narcissism in leaders not only serves as an impediment for team performance. As these two other studies illustrate, it can also encourage conflicts between employees as well.

Researchers in the Netherlands surveyed over 130 healthcare workers to find out if they felt like they had an opportunity to voice their opinion and more importantly, if those in charge made them feel as though they were being heard. In addition, the researchers also asked participants to rate the amount of conflict they experienced within their teams.

Not surprisingly, in situations where input from employees is solicited but then ignored or disregarded, employees ended up tuning out and not fully participating in future discussions or planning efforts. However, what researchers also found is that in workplaces where leaders give lip-service to idea of listening to their employees, the amount of conflict between employees was greater than in those teams where leaders were attentive to what they were being told by their team members.

More often than not, we tend to look at conflicts in the workplace from the context of employee disagreement due to misconceptions or poor communications between the involved parties. While this might be the catalyst for most conflicts, what this study shows is that a leader’s indifference to truly listening to what their employees have to say sets the stage for others in their organization to focus on defending their turf instead of making efforts to understand why the conflict exists in the first place.

In fact, a joint study by the University of British Columbia, Clemson University, and Georgia State University found that employees who chose to sabotage the work of their colleagues do so not simply out of feelings of envy, but also because they suffer from disengagement brought on from the perception that their managers are keeping them ‘out of the loop’ . The researchers found that when leaders focus on creating a culture that encourages a sense of connectivity between employees, they are far less likely to undermine the efforts of their colleagues, regardless of how envious they might feel.

In each of these studies, we see the recurring theme of how it’s the responsibility of leaders to model the behaviour you want to see in others; of setting the tone and demonstrating what should matter most to your team and organization. In this light, it becomes clear that the inability to look beyond your own self-interests and needs not only undermines a team’s effectiveness, but it has negative repercussions on how employees work together and communicate with one another.

Of course, as the first study demonstrated, our own perceptions of what it takes to be a good leader can often be the wrong one; that we tend to believe that only those who are inclined to narcissistic tendencies will be successful in the leadership role.

Looking at these studies as a whole, though, we can see that to be truly successful as a leader requires a drive to help others to achieve success and not simply focusing on your own achievements. Indeed, the accomplishments of those we hold in high regard as being successful leaders are not personal in nature or specific to that individual. Rather, their successes are defined by how they helped their organization to attain goals or milestones which previously might have seemed unthinkable but which have since become a part of their collective history and culture.

In writing about leadership, Benjamin Franklin said:

He who cannot follow cannot lead”.

If nothing else, these studies serve to remind us that focusing only on ourselves, on what we want to accomplish – as opposed to what matters to everyone on your team – is not the path to becoming a true leader. That what it takes to be a leader in today’s world is someone who is driven not by their own selfish interests, but by a desire to help others succeed and in so doing, achieves a measure of success for themselves as well.

Click here to subscribe to my blog so you can get my latest posts sent directly to your inbox.

  1. On November 2nd, 2011 at 11:33 AM Patti Johnson said:

    Tanveer, really interesting. Agree that the best leaders aren't focused just on their own successes, but those of others. Ego & definition of success are often at play. Well done.

  2. On November 2nd, 2011 at 8:04 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Patti; I'm glad you enjoyed this. Although I read about each of these studies independently, upon further reflection I realized that there were clear connections between the findings which serve to reinforce the fact that if you want to serve in a leadership position, you have to be willing to shift your focus away from yourself and more towards answering the question "what can I do to help those around me succeed?".

    Thanks again Patti for sharing your thoughts on this piece.

  3. On November 2nd, 2011 at 8:43 PM pcprima said:

    I find it from a employee perspective much more motivating to work for a likeable, communicative leader than a self-centered one. It creates a much better work atmosphere.

  4. On November 3rd, 2011 at 10:29 AM Tanveer Naseer said:

    That it does, and these three studies also show that it's also the best way for leaders to truly tap into the full potential of their employees.

  5. On November 3rd, 2011 at 10:05 AM Milena said:

    This is a good example of intelligent blogging.
    Keep up the good work Tanveer.

  6. On November 3rd, 2011 at 10:29 AM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Milena; I appreciate that.

  7. On November 3rd, 2011 at 3:15 PM Gwyn Teatro said:

    Tanveer, this is a really thought provoking post. I’m quite intrigued by the results of the first study, in particular the finding that although the groups with narcissistic leaders failed to produce a good result, they were recognized as being stronger leaders than those who took a more collaborative and inclusive approach to the task. It’s a puzzling thing to me but I have a hunch about it.
    I’m thinking that in spite of the poor effect these leaders had on results, a compensating factor for the rest is that they can quickly disengage themselves from those results having had little opportunity for input in the first place. In other words, a poor result from a group led by a more collaborative leader is a poor result for everyone but a poor result for a narcissistic leader can easily be interpreted as a failure belonging to the leader alone. That can have some attraction for some people.

  8. On November 4th, 2011 at 9:20 AM Tanveer Naseer said:

    That's an excellent observation, Gwyn, and I agree with you that are people out there who prefer to work under the radar as it were, avoiding any responsibility either for a group's success or failure. Certainly for these types, serving under a narcissisitic individual would be appealing as they wouldn't have to stand up and get involved.

    But I'm wondering if these individuals alone could count for the study's finding of having narcissistic leaders earning a higher rating within their teams than those leaders who show a greater interest in listening and seeking the input of others. As I wrote in reply to John's comment, perhaps what we see at work here is the blurring between being a hero and being a leader, where a hero is naturally expected to 'take charge' and own the situation personally because of their traits, knowledge or skills while a leader should be more focused on communicating the goal or vision that they want their team to realize and then facilitating their team to make it happen.

    An interesting follow-up to this study would be to run similar experiments in Asian countries to see how their perspective on leadership aligns with which personality type achieves the best results to ascertain how much our cultural influences impacts our perceptions of leadership.

    Thanks again, Gwyn, for the insightful comment and for the kind words.

  9. On November 5th, 2011 at 8:04 PM Gwyn Teatro said:

    Yes, perhaps what we need to do is change the mythology associated with “good” leadership. Getting back to the safety issue, our heroes tend to make us feel that way, safe. The mythology of the hero is that he (& the mythical hero is usually male) is bigger, stronger and more resilient than the rest. When someone creates that impression then I think we tend to feel better about following that lead regardless of what is accomplished. Maybe the question is: what will it take for us to give up our affair with the ‘heroic’ leader and embrace a more collaborative model that includes shared leadership and shared accountability? Don’t know the answer. Perhaps I’d be a hero if I did. ☺

  10. On November 8th, 2011 at 11:55 AM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Hi Gwyn,

    It seems our conversation is pulling out ideas shared in my previous piece "What Does The World Really Need From Today’s Leaders?" wherein which I pointed out that we're once again beginning to promote the concept of the leader being the lone wolf who the rest of us follow simply because we don't think we know better than they do. Granted, not many of us want to take the lead position, but that doesn't mean that only a few of us know at any given point in time what's the best course of action. That's why I've written here and elsewhere that the best leaders are those who know when to take the pole position and when to get out of the way of their employees who, being on the front lines, know best what should be done next.

    There's no question that we do play a hand in allowing this narcissistic model of leadership to perpetuate (which the first study reinforces); what's required now is the willingness of each of us to recognize that we all have the capacity to lead without titles with the understanding that doing such will allow us to tap into our full potential. Thanks again for the stimulating discussion, Gwyn. As always, I appreciate the insights you bring to the conversation.

  11. On November 9th, 2011 at 12:13 PM Mark Kiefaber said:

    Tanveer et al: In my coaching and leadership development program work over the past 20 years, I have often seen exactly what your original post and responses are talking about. I use an online assessment that reveals preferences for how a person employs their psycho-motor energy when working with people. One of these preferences is the Driver, and obviously that preference "looks like leadership". There are 3 others, though…Organizer, Collaborator, and Visionary. All are available to us at any time, but mostly I see strong Driver and Organizer preferences in senior leaders. My coaching quite often revolves around helping these people gain easier access to their Collaborator energy. It can be a difficult struggle.

  12. On November 11th, 2011 at 12:06 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Interesting insights, Mark. Thanks for sharing them.

  13. On November 3rd, 2011 at 3:41 PM John Hal said:

    Helping others succeed should be what we measure our leaders by. Too often we don't…we measure by the Hollywood standard instead.

  14. On November 4th, 2011 at 9:00 AM Tanveer Naseer said:

    That we do, John, as evidenced by how those in the first study rated their narcissistic leaders higher than those who worked from a more outwards-focused perspective. I think part of the problem is that we've mixed being a hero with being a leader, and that romanticism associated with that part is why so many leaders get frustrated since they don't understand that it really isn't about you, but about serving those you lead.

  15. On November 4th, 2011 at 2:56 PM Jean Tupas said:

    I don't think narcissism is good in leadership. Well, narcissism is another form of selfishness. If you were the team leader, how could you value your members' opinions if you always think about yours? It just does not make any sense.

    "He who cannot follow cannot lead”. -exactly the opposite of narcissism and leadership. Right?

    GREAT POST, by the way. 🙂

  16. On November 6th, 2011 at 1:43 AM Robert Benwell said:

    Narcissists believe that everything revolves around them because they think they are better than others.This are not the kinds of qualities that most people consider to be desirable leadership traits. This will only lead to factions between the leader and his followers.

  17. On November 8th, 2011 at 11:59 AM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Over the long term, I agree with you that narcissistic leaders will create fractures and discord within their teams. The problem, though, is that in the short-term, team members see these narcissistic tendencies as being beneficial and positive traits in a leader and as such, allow such behaviour to not only go unchecked but validated as being acceptable. I'm sure if the researchers were able to keep these groups being lead by a narcissist for a longer period of time, we'd see that the ratings they get in terms of being an effective leader would degrade over time.

    Thanks again, Robert, for sharing your thoughts on this piece.

  18. On November 15th, 2011 at 7:50 AM Alex said:

    Man, I had a narcissist boss, and nothing went like it should.. she thought everything is about her and her opinion.. narcissism and being a boss don't go together.

    Good post Tanveer

  19. On November 15th, 2011 at 9:13 AM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Alex; glad to hear you enjoyed it.

  20. On June 5th, 2012 at 2:00 AM Liz Wiseman said:

    Nice post Tanveer. I've found similar themes in the research I did for the book Multipliers. Sometimes smart capable leaders have a way of dumbing down everyone else around them. It is like they don't see past their own intelligence. Other leaders (I call them Multipliers) amplify the intelligence of people around them. I'm happy to share the research/writing if you are interested.

    Liz Wiseman

  21. On June 5th, 2012 at 11:44 AM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Hi Liz,

    Thanks for sharing your insights on this from your research. I would definitely be interested in learning more about your work. Thanks for the offer; looking forward to discussing this with you.

  22. On December 10th, 2012 at 2:34 AM Nabeela Riduan said:

    Hi Tanveer,

    Great article I must say.
    In fact, I am writing to feature this article in our Guild of HR e-Mag which is published online monthly.

    Kindly email me if you’re keen for us to take this forward.

    Nabeela Riduan
    HR Republic
    Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

  23. On December 12th, 2012 at 1:21 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Hi Nabeela,

    I'm glad you enjoyed this piece and I'd be delighted to share it with your readers. I'll be sending you an email shortly to discuss this further.

Your Comment: